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What to Know About Spinal Infections

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on May 25, 2021

Spinal infections are rare but can be deadly, so you need to get a proper diagnosis as soon as possible if you’re experiencing spinal pain.

Read on to learn more about what spinal infections are, different types of spinal infections, how to recognize them, and how to treat them. Each kind of spine infection has its own causes, symptoms, and treatment.

What Is a Spinal Infection?

Spinal infections are bacterial or fungal infections that occur in or around your spine or backbone. They can cause different symptoms depending on what kind of spinal infection you have.

For instance, if your infection involves the space between the parts of your backbone, known as the vertebrae, you may experience difficult urination, weight loss, fever, and severe back pain. An example of such an infection is discitis.

If you suspect you have a spinal infection, talk to your doctor immediately to get a proper diagnosis. Otherwise, the infection may cause irreversible damage to your backbone and the areas around it.

Osteomyelitis

Also known as spondylodiscitis, osteomyelitis is a common spinal infection affecting adults. It affects your vertebrae. This condition will also affect the discs in between vertebrae, known as intervertebral discs.

Causes. This condition can be caused by bacteria, parasites, or fungi spreading into your backbone. There are a few ways they can get in your spine, including:

  • Surgery. For instance, you can get infections from spinal metalwork
  • Infection spreading from the surrounding tissues
  • Infections in the blood

Symptoms. The main symptom experienced by people with osteomyelitis is pain in the spine, specifically, backbone pain that gets worse at night and doesn’t go away with time. This is one of the telltale signs of osteomyelitis.

Oftentimes, pain is the only symptom, making this condition difficult to diagnose. In some cases, you may also experience difficulty moving your limbs, but this only happens if your spinal cord has also been compressed.

Treatment. To find out if you have this condition, your doctor may order:

  • Blood tests for white blood cell level
  • X-rays
  • CT scans
  • MRI scans

The doctor will then look at the results to determine how far the infection has spread and if there’s any abscess formation. Doctors typically prescribe antibiotics to treat osteomyelitis. If you’re experiencing other symptoms such as spinal instability, you may need surgery.

Discitis

Discitis is when the intervertebral disc is inflamed. Some believe that discitis and osteomyelitis are stages of the same disease.

Causes. This is an infection that can happen after surgery or on its own. It can be caused by Staphylococcus aureus, which is the most common cause, as well as other bacteria such as Streptococcus.

You can develop discitis due to a urinary tract infection or pneumonia spreading throughout your body through your bloodstream.

Symptoms. If you have discitis, you may experience fevers, radiating pain throughout your body, pain whenever you move your spine, and chills.

Discitis can affect children, particularly young children and teens. Most people with this condition have other medical conditions, such as diabetes mellitus.

Complications that can develop out of discitis include.

  • Spinal deformity
  • Neurological problems

Treatment. There are many ways to treat discitis. Treatments can range from antibiotics to spinal bracing. Most of the time, discitis is treated with antibiotics and sometimes with surgery.

If surgery is needed, debridement, which is the removal of infected tissue, will probably be done.

Meningitis

Meningitis can cause many problems if not treated properly or on time. It can spread rapidly and causes swelling in the areas around your brain and spine.

Causes. Meningitis can be infectious or noninfectious. This means it can be caused by drugs and disorders as well as by viruses and other organisms. When meningitis is caused by a virus, the brain tissue will not be affected. However, the brain may be affected if you have bacterial meningitis.

Symptoms. If you have meningitis, you will have symptoms that you typically get with viral infections, such as fever and muscle aches (myalgias). You will then experience specific symptoms of meningitis, such as:

  • Fever
  • Neck stiffness
  • Headache

If the brain tissue itself is affected, you may have:

  • Seizures
  • Delirium
  • Neurological impairment, which can affect your ability to speak and move

Diagnosis and treatment. Your doctor may do the following tests to see if you have meningitis and what the cause may be:

  • Blood culture
  • Throat swab
  • Cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) analysis to look at protein and glucose levels and cell count
  • Stool sample

If you have bacterial meningitis, your doctor will immediately give you antibiotics and corticosteroids. On the other hand, viral meningitis can go away by itself over a couple of weeks or months, so doctors will give you supportive treatment and any appropriate antiviral medication.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES

American Association of Neurological Surgeons: “Spinal Infections.”

British Medical Bulletin: “Vertebral osteomyelitis in adults: an update.”

Deutsches Ärzteblatt International: “Spondylodiscitis: Diagnosis and Treatment Options.”

Journal of Neurosciences in Rural Practice: “Spontaneous Spinal Discitis and Spondylodiscitis: Clinicotherapeutic Remarks.”

Merck Manual: “Viral Meningitis.”

Mount Sinai: “Spinal Infections.”

Muscara, Joseph D. and Blazar, Eric. Diskitis. StatPearls Publishing, 2021

Stanford Health Care: “Types of Spinal Infection.”

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